Since the establishment of devolution, ending poverty and reducing inequality has been a constant ambition of successive governments.

Yet, as we approach our sixth Senedd election, 700,000 people in Wales find themselves in financial insecurity. More than a quarter of Welsh children live in poverty.

Powers over welfare and benefits such as Universal Credit remain under the control of Westminster. In 2018, the Equality and Human Rights Commission reported that the UK Government’s welfare reforms could push an extra 50,000 children in Wales into poverty by 2021-22.

There are fears the pandemic will exacerbate this projection.

Victoria Winckler, director of the poverty think tank the Bevan Foundation, told The National that although the Welsh Government does not control all the levers of policy, it certainly has the power to influence outcomes.

“The official stats show that for most groups, there has been little change [since the start of devolution],” said Ms Winckler.

“We have seen a decrease in the number of people not in work, but there has been an explosion of people who are working and trapped in poverty.

“The big picture is that despite all the talk, not much has changed.”

Poverty is not equal across Wales. You are more likely to be in poverty if you are a single parent than a couple without children. The more children you have, the more at risk you become.

The type of work you do matters as well. You are more likely to be at risk working in retail than you are in construction.

Beyond the statistics, poverty has a real impact on people and communities across Wales. It affects educational attainment, crime, employment and the money spent dealing with its symptoms.

Creating jobs and the cost of living

Tackling poverty and inequality is high on the agenda of each of Wales’ three largest parties. The Tories want to "kickstart the Welsh economy blighted by falling GDP, poverty and low pay". Labour has promised to "build back fairer" after the pandemic. Plaid Cymru has vowed to "root out inequality".

Job creation and employment are common across their approaches.

For the Tories, the approach is twofold: increasing the number of quality jobs and helping people meet the cost of living.

To do this, they have promised to deliver a further 65,000 jobs, 15,000 of which would be green.

Alongside this jobs promise, a council tax freeze for at least the next two years is intended to help reduce living costs across Wales.

Job creation is also central to Plaid Cymru’s agenda, with a Green Economic Stimulus proposed to create 60,000 jobs and reform of council tax also intended to cut the average household bill.

For Labour, the move to low-carbon house building will create thousands of jobs in the construction industry, while their 'Young Persons’ Guarantee', will offer a guarantee of work, education or training for all people aged under 25.

Poverty is about more than providing jobs

Despite the tightening of historic gaps in economic activity and employment between Wales and the rest of the UK, there has not been a significant reduction in the number of people living in poverty in Wales.

Around two thirds live in households where at least one adult is in employment.

It is why members of the Wales Anti-Poverty Coalition (WAPC) have called on the next Welsh Government to make poverty reduction a priority.

The Bevan Foundation is one of the coalition's signatories, and Ms Winckler told The National none of Wales’ parties were promising enough to truly tackle poverty and inequality.

Ms Winckler said: “From the pledges that have been made so far, all parties have proposed policies that would help some aspects of poverty reduction.

“However, what I haven’t seen is any party putting the standard of living or life chances at the centre of their approaches.

“We have seen the price people have paid during the pandemic and there are few signs that those massive gaps between people are going to close.

“That is a moral issue, but it is also a financial issue. Around one fifth of Welsh Government spending goes on alleviating the consequences of poverty – such as homelessness, crime and health.

“That is a lot of money, and we could be doing so much better.”

Access to housing

Despite the radical approach favoured by the anti-poverty coalition not being met, there are a number of other policy areas that the parties believe will help go some way to tackling poverty, including access to housing.

For Rob Simkins of the housing charity Shelter Cymru, housing and poverty are inseperable: “The bottom line is, housing is vital because it impacts on finances.

"When people spend more money on housing, they have less money to put food on the table. It is one of the fundamental barriers to addressing poverty."

Again, the Tories have made bold promises. They are pledging to build 100,000 new homes over the next 10 years, including 40,000 social homes, while scrapping land transaction tax for first-time buyers and restoring the right-to-buy policy which would allow council tenants to buy their own homes.

Right-to-buy was ditched by Welsh Labour in 2019 and there is no suggestion they would support its return. Labour have pledged to build 20,000 new low-carbon social homes.

The Lib Dems are aiming for 30,000 affordable homes, but for Plaid Cymru, the issue of housing is one of both supply and demand.

The party has pledged to build 50,000 'genuinely affordable homes' to rent and buy over the next five years, but they also want to address the issues of home ownership.

The party has cited figures showing that around 40 per cent of houses in Gwynedd that go on the market are now bought as second homes.

To address this, the party has set out a series of policies including allowing councils to charge council tax premiums of up to 200 per cent on second homes, not allowing them to be registered as businesses, and changing planning laws to allow councils to impose a cap on the number of second homes in their local authority.

For Shelter, the fact housing is finally getting the coverage it deserves is a welcome step.

“We were championing at least 20,000 social homes and that has been committed to," said Rob.

"The devil will be in the detail when the manifestos are released, and then we can then see how some of these pledges play out."

Childcare, poverty and hunger

According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, one factor preventing people from escaping in-work poverty is the need to balance paid work with childcare.

This is an issue central to the Liberal Democrats’ campaign, with the party promising free childcare for all children from nine months through to school age.

For Plaid Cymru, the same promise has been made to all children over the age of two.

Once children are in school, there is then the issue of hunger.

More than 75,000 pupils aged between five and 15 qualify for free school meals in Wales, however not all households claiming Universal Credit are eligible.

Campaign groups such as People’s Assembly Wales and Child Poverty Action Group believe extending free school meals to children in families on Universal Credit will combat the stigma that currently prevents many families from claiming them.

Plaid Cymru has pledged to give free school meals to every child in primary school if it forms the next Welsh Government.

As the incumbent government, Labour have committed to continuing to provide its current level of free school meals up until Easter 2022, a policy broadly welcomed and supported by the Welsh Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats.


A more radical approach? UBI makes its case

A number of parties have also proposed more radical approaches to addressing poverty and inequality, one of which is Universal Basic Income (UBI).

UBI, a regular payment given to everybody on a regular basis, regardless of their income, wealth or employment status, has been championed by the Future Generations Commissioner of Wales, while earlier this year Gwynedd council backed a motion calling for a pilot of the scheme.

In previous elections, it has been a fringe issue. It has more attention this time around.

Plaid Cymru, the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party have all committed to trialling UBI, while Gwlad – the party for Welsh independence – has advocated for UBI since it was founded.

It is the movement into the mainstream of policies previously deemed too radical that offers poverty activists hope that Wales can make progress on tackling the scourges of inequality and poverty.

No one party in Wales owns the solution and a range of policies will provide voters with a real choice at the ballot box this year.  

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